I’ve been doing preparation for this coming school year, and as I planned my first units, I started to fall into the trap I always fall into at the start of a new school year: starting the year off too fast. Every single year since I’ve been in the classroom I rush through the first unit for some reason. In my college prep courses, I rush through the unit on Reconstruction because it’s review from the 8th grade, or so I tell myself. In my AP classes, I rush through the pre-1607 period because it’s not the focus of the AP exam, or so I tell myself. I blaze through those first units to get to the “good” or “real” stuff of the course. By the time I get to my destination, however, I’ve set a tone for the course that I think is actually harming my classes more than helping them.
Putting myself in my students’ shoes, I think the message they receive in those first two weeks or so is that getting stuff done is more important than the process, answers are more important than questions, and content and facts are more important than skills and thinking. This is definitely not what I believe, but I think it’s the message I’ve sent to my students at the start of every single school year. Admitting that to myself makes me feel guilty and ashamed. Is it any wonder that I and my students get frustrated one month into the school year as I try to change directions and essentially un-send all those previous messages?
I wrote in my last post about my students’ difficulties with paraphrasing and vocabulary development, and since writing that post, I’ve been looking about for various exercises to help my students with these two essential skills. As I read through various articles and lesson plans, my initial reaction was to always worry about the time required. I had to stop myself repeatedly from rejecting a lesson idea simply based on the time required. Everything in me wanted to figure out a way to cut the lessons in half; everything in me wanted to go, go, go. Somehow I made myself hit the pause button in my planning, which was a significant achievement in and of itself, I must say. I stopped to consider what would happen if I tried to rush through teaching paraphrasing to my students, if I cut a legitimately effective lesson in half to save a class period or so. I imagined what the work my students’ handed in would look like if I rushed the process. I imagined having to either re-teach or (worse) move on without having met the standard. It wasn’t what I wanted for them or for me.
I’ve gone back to the drawing board, and as I’ve done so, each day that I sit down to work on my first units of the new school year I remind myself to slow down. As a result my unit on Reconstruction has grown from a mere 10 days to closer to 16 or so. When I look at the quality of the unit, it’s grown as well. The unit is a more accurate reflection of what I actually care about in terms of what I want my students to learn, in terms of the messages I want them to receive in those first few weeks of school that will carry us through the year.
All this planning will matter little, however, if I rush the actual experience come August. I have to figure out a way to remind myself on a daily (hourly?) basis once the school year begins to slow down. I’m considering actually taping up signs around my classroom that say, “Slow Down.” I figure if I place them within my line of sight as I’m teaching it may help me to take my foot off the pedal. Anyone have any other ideas? I’m all ears.